In the cause of workers

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

P. RAMAMURTIS contribution to the trade union movement in India is multidimensional. As a committed Marxist, he was of the opinion that trade unions had greater responsibilities than fighting merely to fulfil the short-term economic aspirations of workers. According to him, they also had to educate workers politically to play an effective role in the struggle against exploitation.

Paying tributes to Ramamurti at a function to commemorate his birth centenary in Chennai on September 23, M.K. Pandhe, president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that Ramamurti did not conform to the belief of certain trade unions and a section of socialists that the Jawaharlal Nehru governments early initiatives under the Congress objective of socialistic pattern of society would help liberate the working class. Instead, he asserted that the emancipation of the working class could be achieved only by the working class. What it needed to achieve this, he said, were unity, political education, unflinching faith in the ideology and militancy. It is with this basic understanding that Ramamurti approached labour issues all his life.

Although trade unions were functioning in several parts of the country since the beginning of the 20th century and the national movement was drawing support from the organised labour every now and then, class-based organisation of workers happened only in the 1930s when the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) began to be felt in India significantly. During this time Marxist groups also started appearing on the scene, but the colonial government banned their functioning. To circumvent the ban, members of these groups joined the Congress Socialist Party, which was then functioning within the Congress Party and comprised progressive Congressmen.

In Tamil Nadu, Congress activists such as Ramamurti, P. Jeevanandam and B. Srinivasa Rao became members of the Communist Party of India. While Ramamurti and Jeevanandam concentrated on organising urban industrial workers, BSR was given the task of forming a kisan (farmers) movement and bringing together agricultural workers under a union. The earliest to be brought to the union fold were toddy-tappers and rickshaw-pullers, besides workers of the numerous snuff-manufacturing units in Chennai.

Soon employees of the electricity supply system in the city and tramways workers were also unionised. Ramamurti then expanded his activities to the industrial hubs of Coimbatore and Madurai and brought under his influence thousands of workers in the textile mills and engineering units there. He also played a crucial role in organising employees of larger public utility services such as the Railways.

He succeeded in getting many of their pending grievances resolved but faced police repression and violent resistance from employers hirelings and loyal workers. He employed all the skills at his command to win the maximum benefits for workers through negotiations, arbitration and adjudication.

The legal acumen he acquired in the process was not through formal studies but by reading labour-related laws and interacting with officials, advocates and workers. The litigation over several labour issues brought about valuable judicial pronouncements, including the one that squashed the victimisation of workers for organising themselves or participating in strikes. Another verdict upheld the right of the union with a proven majority to get recognised by the employers.

Ramamurtis expertise, experience and fearlessness in confronting the hurdles he had to face and repression by the state machinery in support of the employers took him to greater heights. He was given important positions in the party and also the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), to which the unions under the control of the State units of the party had been affiliated.

Following the split in the Communist Party in 1964, Ramamurti threw his weight behind the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and played a key role in forming a new affiliating body, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), in 1970. He was elected its first general secretary and held this position until 1983. He made extensive tours to strengthen the State units of the CITU and bring more workers and unions into its fold. His acquaintance with several Indian languages and his oratorical skills helped him reach out to the people of many northern States.

The leaders of other Central labour organisations also sought his help in resolving complicated industrial disputes. Over the decades, Ramamurti evolved into a leader of leaders, as CITU leader and Member of Parliament Santasri Chatterjee pointed out in his centenary tribute.

Pandhe made a specific reference to Ramamurtis role as a Member of Parliament in drafting labour-related Bills and ensuring that the laws enacted were foolproof. He specifically cited the Bonus Act and the Industrial Relations Act, in whose legislation process Ramamurti played a significant role.

Ramamurti took active participation also in the meetings of several international organisations. He repeatedly pressed the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) to make fight against imperialism and support for class struggle its policy. The international organisation of workers, which had thus far been reluctant to do so, accepted his plea recently.

S. Viswanathan
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